HELENA — By a 3-to-1 margin, opponents outnumbered supporters of a bill Wednesday that would repeal Montana's 2004 voter-passed law legalizing the use of medical marijuana in the state.
At issue before the House Human Services Committee was House Bill 161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade. The preliminary count of people signed up to speak showed 86 opponents and 28 supporters of the bill. The committee took no immediate on the vote.
Milburn talked about the huge increase in people obtaining medical marijuana cards — more than 28,000 people now have them — and what it has done to Montana and its schools, cities and towns with the increased use of marijuana by teens.
“So it's no longer an issue of medical marijuana,” he said. “It's an issue of marijuana. We've opened the floodgate. It's like Hurricane Katrina. We're not talking about the dikes holding back the water anymore. We're talking about how do you rebuild the city.”
He said Montana is fast developing the reputation nationally as being the place nationally where people can come and buy their marijuana.
He said there are no scientific studies that prove marijuana has any medicinal value, a claim disputed by opponents.
“We need to shut this industry down.” he said. “We need to take another look at it. We need to start over. We need to do it in a calculated and reasonable fashion.”
Outside the hearing room, many people opposed to the bill carried signs that said, “Mr. Milburn, keep your hands off my medicine.”
Inside the hearing room, opponents, some of them in wheelchairs and others using crutches, told how using medical marijuana had helped their medical problems.
“Without medical marijuana, I wouldn't make it as far as I did with my life,” said Jeff Swenson, who was in a wheelchair.
Tess Raunig, who also was in a wheelchair, said she was born with cystic fibrosis that left her with spastic muscles.
Last year, she said she discovered that medical marijuana worked much better than any of the prescription muscle relaxants she had tried without all the numerous psychological side effects like depression and anxiety.
“I am a productive member of society,” Raunig said. “I hold three jobs. One of those is a personal therapist for another person with a disability. I don't believe without medical cannabis I would be able to hold this job. I'm also a straight-A college student. I'm graduating this semester with a degree in vocal performance and entertainment management certificate. ... I'm a good person and I don't want to be turned into a criminal.”
Katrina Farnum, an herbalist representing Montanans for Responsible Legislation, agreed that the current law needs some amendments but opposed its repeal, saying it would turn more than 20,000 people into criminals overnight.
“I paid $10,000 in taxes this year, and if I am made a criminal because this bill passes, someone will be giving me a return check for $4,000,” she said.
Meanwhile, supporters of HB161 included Candace Payne, representing the Rimrock Foundation, which treats people with additions. She quoted a Rimrock official who said the use of marijuana by at-risk kids now surpasses alcohol.
“Make no mistake about it,” she said. “Marijuana is a very addictive drug. Today's pot is 25 percent stronger than the pot of the '60s and the baby boom generation. ... Legalizing medical marijuana has made this drug more assessable to our young people and they are increasingly using it.”
Mark Long, representing the Montana Narcotic Officers Association, estimated that medical marijuana is probably close to a $1 billion-a-year unregulated business in Montana, with, in some cases, criminal elements infiltrating it.
“The market in Montana is tremendously, oversaturated with marijuana,” Long said. “There's just not enough patients in Montana to take the marijuana that's produced.”
Long said many of the medical marijuana patients he's met are low-income or fixed-income people, so he wonders where all the money is coming from.
Law enforcement officers in other states refer to Montana as “a source country” for marijuana, he said.
Susan Smith of Billings is one of the mothers who helped start Safe Communities, Safe Kids, a group that collected nearly 20,000 signatures in less than a week trying to put a repeal initiative on the 2010 ballot. The group fell about 5,000 signatures short.
Montanans now know they have been “lied to, duped and deceived regarding current medical marijuana law,” she said.
Smith said she would hold legislators “morally responsible as a governing body” for the decision they make on this issue.
“Are you willing to ruin our communities and families in this state?” she asked. “The devastation and heartbreak has already touched the lives of many.”